Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Cardozo 59’ (pen) 79’ (pen)
The bad fan I am, I would have taken 1-2 before the match with the teams’ respective home and away forms, but that left an absolutely awful, awful taste in the mouth. Evidently the referee wasn’t aware that April Fools’ Day doesn’t mean that he has to act the fool. Even if there were no complaints on either spot kick, “home refereeing” is the nicest way to put it after a farcical first half.
And it’s made even worse because Liverpool had the perfect start, controlling the tempo, blunting Benfica, and scoring an early away goal. And it was a goal remarkably similar to Liverpool’s early strike against Chelsea in the Champions League three years ago, with Gerrard cheekily centering a free kick for an on-rushing Agger to side-foot. The only difference was the strike was ten yards closer, after the captain smartly won a free kick trying to barge into the box from the left.
Benfica responded well, often through the dangerous Di Maria down Liverpool’s right and the impressive Carlos Martins dictating midfield play in the absence of Saviola (with Aimar further forward). The home side had chances to level, mainly through Cardozo headers off-target or too close to Reina, unsurprisingly from Di Maria’s crosses.
To frustratingly continue the analogy with past Chelsea meetings, Babel's sending off was eerily reminiscent of Reina’s for tapping Arjen Robben, and predictably changed the game. Only this time, there was even less of an excuse given Luisao’s provocation. Just like all the other teams this season, Benfica shamelessly thought the best way to beat Liverpool was to hack Torres, and on the half-hour mark, Luisao scythed the back of his ankle with no thoughts for the ball. Somehow he only received a yellow for the horror show.
Babel rightfully decided to defend his teammate, but foolishly put his hands to Luisao’s face twice in front of the referee. If it’s the Prem, Babel probably gets yellow and/or a stern lecture (unless it’s Alan Wiley, obviously), but in Europe’s he off. How Luisao stayed on the field for the tackle, let alone his part in the handbags, is beyond me though. Once again, Torres was kicked up and down the pitch while a referee smirked stupidly. Infuriating.
The red card made Liverpool’s pressing game and defensive steel even more necessary, shifting to a 4-2-2-1 after the red card, with Gerrard wider left and Lucas trying to join the attack when possible. That was always going to be a tough ask with Benfica’s attacking prowess. They impressively held out for the rest of the half, with Benfica limited to shots wide from Di Maria and Garcia. And Torres looked to have added a surprising second, slamming in after Julio Cesar punched Gerrard’s free kick, only to see Kuyt marginally ruled offside in the build-up.
But the second half was all Benfica’s, and less than 15 minutes, Cardozo nearly scored when slamming a free kick off the post, only to see Insua – who had a dreadful day – rashly foul Aimar in the subsequent scramble. Sigh. After all the misses with his head, the striker made no mistake from the spot.
Liverpool actually looked stronger after the equalizer, slowing the Benfica attacks and prompting Jorge Jesus to send on striker Nuno Gomes for right back Maxi Pereira. But Liverpool should have taken the lead in the 76th with a chance you would have put your life on Torres scoring. Quickly breaking from defense, Kuyt found Torres with a perfect throughball, only to see the striker shoot wide of the near post in space.
Pessimism and kicks to the crotch soon re-reared their heads as Benfica won another penalty three minutes later when Carragher dove in, arms raised, to stop Di Maria’s cross. Same taker, same side, same result. 1-2, and felt undeserved to say the least.
But at least Liverpool didn’t concede a third during a dangerous last 15 minutes with players on both sides clearly tiring. Benfica will obviously be happy with a win, but 1-2 isn’t the worst result for Liverpool either. The away goal certainly helps mute the anger over other matters.
There were two bad mistakes for the penalties, but all in all, Liverpool played as they wanted to play. Clearly hampered by a harsh red card, the side was under far more pressure without a key release valve. Insua’s going to come under a lot of criticism for today’s performance, and he had a stinker, but I still feel compelled to remind he’s 21, had the winger in front of him sent off, and wouldn’t be first choice if Aurelio could stay fit. I’m interested to see what Liverpool will do in the next leg as he picked up an earlier yellow that rules him out of the next leg.
For the second-straight round, Liverpool has it all to do in the home match. A resilient performance in the face of a weak referee and a hostile atmosphere (including two stoppages for fireworks thrown at Reina’s goal. Classy.), means Liverpool only has a one-goal deficit to overturn, with the added advantage of an away goal. They’ll need to win as well as keep it tight, so it’ll probably look a lot like today (except for Babel and Insua’s suspensions). Which should at least make for a fun match for the neutrals, if a nail-biter for the rest of us.